By Laine Welch
Bering Sea crabbers got good news and bad news last week when catch quotas were announced for fisheries that open next week.
The bad news: the catch for Alaska’s most famous crab fishery – Bristol Bay red kings – was slashed by 47 percent to just 7.8 million pounds. Crabbers were expecting a reduced harvest, but they were shocked by the big drop.
The crab harvest is the second lowest since 2001 when 7.1 million pounds were taken, according to Wayne Donaldson, a longtime crab biologist at ADF&G in Kodiak.
The Bristol Bay king crab catches have been trending downwards for several years due to low numbers of legal sized males recruiting into the fishery, the only crabs that can be retained for sale. There are hopeful signs of stronger year classes showing up – but it is slow going, as it takes about seven years for the crab to reach market size.
Prices for red king crab set a record last year, averaging $7.42/lb at Dutch Harbor ($7.32/lb delivered at Kodiak), making the value close to $112 million at the docks. Since the bulk of Alaska’s king crab goes to Japan, prices are likely to be high again this season because the yen is very strong against a weakened US dollar. The king crab season opens Oct. 15.
The good news: Bering Sea crabbers also were shocked at the catch increase for Alaska’s largest crab fishery, snow crab. The harvest for the 2011/2012 season was boosted by 64 percent to nearly 90 million pounds.
The snow crab fishery is likely to remain at that level for several years, or go higher. Based on annual trawl surveys, biologists estimate the total mature snow crab population has surged to more than one billion pounds. Most importantly, it means Alaska’s snow crab fishery now merits “rebuilt” status by federal overseers, following a collapse of the stocks over a decade ago.
The average base price for Alaska snow crab last season was $2.12/lb, compared to $1.25 the previous year, making the fishery worth $103 million at the docks.
Urchins and gooeys and sea cukes, oh my! Each October divers head down to the frigid ocean floor around Southeast Alaska and Kodiak Island, searching for urchins, sea cucumbers and giant geoduck clams (called gooeyducks).
Kodiak’s fisheries attract fewer than 20 divers, who this year will compete for roughly 150,000 pounds of sea cucumbers; none has signed up for the green urchin fishery (60,000 pounds) for several years.
Southeast is “dive central” and has several hundred permit holders on the books – 180 are active in the sea cucumber fishery, 70 for geoducks, and three for red urchins. Divers use scuba gear or more commonly, hookah gear to seek out their catches.
Geoduck clams, which weigh 2.5 pounds on average, have a harvest limit of 560,000 pounds this year. The clams are sold live to Asian markets, and are fetching $9/lb, compared to $7.50 last year.
Just under one million pounds of sea cucumbers are up for grabs, and they also are destined for Asia. Cukes, which average half a pound, also are worth more this year at $4.25/lb, up from $2.50.
The higher prices will result in ex-vessel values to Panhandle communities of $5 million and $4.25 million, respectively.
Hebert said Southeast Alaska’s dive fisheries are “fully developed,” and there is not much opportunity for expansion. Plus, the fisheries face a growing threat: sea otters.
“There is quite a lot of impact on all these species from sea otters. It’s probably the single most thing that is threatening the fisheries,” Hebert said.
Surveys this past year saw dramatic declines of red urchins and geoducks in once plentiful areas, and Hebert said all evidence points to otters. Broken urchin shells and spines are left behind, and the same goes for geoducks.
“If we are in a sea otter area, we will see large craters that have been dug up by sea otters, pits that might be five or six feet across, and we’ll see freshly broken geoduck shells,” Hebert said.
It is harder to tell with sea cucumbers because no clues remain.
“It’s more circumstantial evidence,” he added. “You see large, rapid declines of biomass where there are large numbers of sea otters in an area, and the presumption is they are eating the sea cucumbers. In some areas that used to be very productive, now there is virtually zero.”
Salmon wraps – State fishery managers stopped posting salmon catch updates on September 16, and the early statewide tally is 172 million fish. Some highlights include the bumper catch of pink salmon in Southeast Alaska at nearly 59 million, blowing past the 55 million forecast. At an average at 40-cents a pound, pinks will ring in at more than $23.5 million at the Southeast docks. Southeast also hauled in the most coho salmon at about 1.8 million, and chums at more than 15 million, although catches for both species are below forecasts statewide. The exception is the AYK region where more than one million chums were taken; more than half from the Yukon River.
For the big money fish – Alaska sockeye – Cook Inlet hit the jackpot with nearly 5.5 million reds, more than double what was expected. . Of course, it’ s sockeye from Bristol Bay that provide the biggest boost to the industry’s bottom line, accounting for over half the value of Alaska’s total salmon fishery.
Fish managers summed up the run this year as ‘early and weaker than forecast.’ The catch of 22 million reds was 27% below projections, but close to long term averages.
“The last several years we have had very high production from all systems in the Bay, well above historic averages and at the top of the data sets. To have folks expect that to maintain for indefinite periods is not very realistic,” said ADF&G’s Paul Salomone.
Despite the lower numbers, the value of the sockeye catch ranks in the top six for the past 20 years. The average base price of $1/lb is up a nickel from last year, and adds up to a $136 million pay day for the Bay. That value will be much higher, as that figure does not include bonuses for chilled fish or other post season price adjustments.
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